PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- When small breweries in the U.S. are opening faster than anyone can visit them, just about the entire country is becoming a craft beer vacation destination.
Back in May, we published a craft beer vacation itinerary that spanned the country from sunny San Diego to beer-soaked Cincinnati. Since that time, the Brewers Association craft beer industry group announced that the U.S. just saw its 3,000th brewery open for business. The growth isn't stopping there.
The Beer Institute beer industry lobbying group in Washington, D.C., noted at the beginning of the year that the U.S. had a record-high 3,699 active "permitted breweries" overseen by the Treasury Department's Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. According to Beer Institute analysis, the majority of the 948 permits issued last year went to brewpubs.
The Brewers Association's latest figure surpasses the 2,685 breweries that appeared on the Register of United States Breweries in 1876. If the TTB's permitted breweries all open for business by the end of the year, they'll surpass the peak of 3,286 in 1870.
Despite the fact the U.S. beer industry as a whole is shrinking -- from 55% of the overall alcohol market to 49% in 2012 -- the story of small brewers in the country is still one of growth. As overall U.S. beer production dipped 1.9% last year and fell for the fourth time in five years, small brewers saw production increase 17.9% and sales jump 20%, to $14.3 billion. As big brewers including Anheuser-Busch InBev, MolsonCoors and Diageo struggle to maintain market share, smaller brewers such as Boston Beer and the Craft Brew Alliance continue to post gains.
Even the fairly obvious beer locations have been enough to fill up not one list of craft beer vacation destinations, but follow-up lists of both regions and cities where vacationing craft beer drinkers could grab some sampling flights. Besides, why limit yourself to the 10 best brewpubs in America when there are brewpubs in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., worth visiting and a new batch popping up each year?
There are two ways we could go on this: Raise the white flag and admit there's going to be a brewery everywhere you stop on U.S. soil or keep taking reader recommendations and hitting the road. Since the former is no fun, here are five more for the latter:
Des Moines, Iowa
On the surface, beer and Iowa have a modest relationship at best. The state has 40 breweries, making it 21st in the nation and 15th per capita. The 0.4 gallons it produces per drinking-age adult ranks just 43rd overall.
But this is a state with a fast-growing beer industry that's increased its brewery count by more than 25% since 2011 and is developing quite the hub for itself in Des Moines. The city of 207,000 is home to seven breweries, giving it roughly three breweries for every 100,000 people. That's not a whole lot in the national rankings, but it definitely beats the 1.8 per 100,000 for the entire state.
We should note that one of those breweries is a member of the Rock Bottom national brewpub chain, but the other six are independent and well worth the time, starting with Court Avenue Brewing. Court Avenue is one of the few brewpubs in the state that isn't a chain, and it takes advantage of that by turning its spent grain into pretzels, brewing root and ginger beer for non-drinkers and kids and labeling each of its brews with labels used by Iowa brewers before Prohibition. Batches such as the 6.7% ABV 21st Amendment American Pale Ale, the citrusy 6.6% ABV Honest Lawyer IPA and malty, mellow brews such as Pointer Brown Ale and Blackhawk Stout flow freely from the gavel-handled taps during happy hour and on game day at Principal Park, home to the Chicago Cubs' Triple-A Iowa Cubs franchise.
The other Des Moines breweries are a mix of brewpubs and taprooms, but they're still worth seeking out. Confluence Brewing came on the scene in 2012 and got its start canning relatively simple brews such as its Farmer John's Multi-Grain Ale (beer folks know this as a Blonde), Des Moines IPA and Capital Gold lager. But a taproom selection about eight beers deep ranges from a Scottish ale it calls Grays Lakes Nessie to its 8.5% alcohol by volume Rock Dodger Double IPA. The sleeper pick of them all, however, is a Blue Corn lager that embraces the adjuncts and uses one of Iowa's finest resources (by way of New Mexico, in this case) to make a bolder, more potent take on the American pilsner.
Overall, that's a pretty excellent summary of Des Moines brewing: Simple beers done well. Upstart brewer Backpocket Brewing in nearby Coralville takes that approach very seriously and limits its slate of beers to five: A German dark lager (Dunkel), a German blonde lager, a Bavarian wheat beer, an American pale ale and a Scottish-style lager. The pizza oven, grill and dessert menu all come second to a lineup that swears strict allegiance to the Reinheitsgebot German beer purity laws that limit ingredients to water, grain, hops and yeast. Raccoon River Brewing, meanwhile, complements its pub grub, pool tables and bands with light lager, pilsner, cream ale, red ale, IPA and stout.
Don't get us wrong, though: “Traditional” and simple does not mean “bland.” Exile Brewing two years ago built its huge, industrial style beer hall and restaurant in a former soap company warehouse and laid a foundation of fun, familiar lagers and ales. Its pinup-labeled series of Bavarian wheat, honey lager, dark lager and gold lager is just the pillars of German brewing in sexier wrapping, while seasonals including IPAs, rye pale ale, pilsners and Kolsch don't stray all too far from their roots. In fact, just about the only brewery in town dabbling in sour beers, Belgian styles, citrusy IPAs or unorthodox ingredients such as ginger and agave is 515 Brewing, which prides itself on having a new rotation of beers on tap every time you walk in the door. With an emphasis on freshness and experimentation, this relative newcomer packs its huge tasting room tables not with beer lovers who aren't looking for masterpieces, but master brewers who aren't afraid to let you sample their first drafts.
Idaho is a beer state best described as sneaky. It has only 34 breweries, which puts it 24th among all 50 states, and produces a 24th-most 1.2 gallons per drinking-age adult.
Despite those middling numbers, though, Idaho has the ninth-most breweries per capita thanks to its relatively small population of 1.6 million. It's a tiny state, but it's growing quick. That's 600,000 more people than Idaho had in 1990, while its capital of Boise has grown from 126,000 to 214,000 during that same span. Forget timber, paper and agriculture: This is a tech town that's also home to a surprising percentage of the nation's call centers.
It's also part of the Pacific Northwest and shares more traits with regional craft beer hubs such as Seattle and Portland than it probably cares to mention. It got its 10 Barrel Brewing outpost before Portland did and had been pouring Swill radler, O.G. wheat IPA, Sinistor Black Ale and Apocalypse IPA long before the Bend, Ore.-based brewer could find Portlandia real estate.
That said, Boise doesn't need Oregon or Washington to tell it how to brew beer. The city accounts for nearly a third of all of Idaho's breweries and is home to some of the state's longest-tenured brewers. Sockeye Brewing has been at it since 1996 and has used cans of its Dagger Falls IPA, Woolybugger Wheat, Galena Gold, Hell Diver Pale Ale, Power House Porter, Summer Ale, Hopnoxious Imperial IPA and others to expand distribution into Eastern Washington and expand its Boise presence to two pubs. Payette Brewing, meanwhile, was founded by a former Boeing engineer who brewed at Seattle's Schooner Exact Brewing before opening his own place in 2010. The lineup is simple: kegs and cans of pale ale, lager, brown ale, IPA and a seasonal -- like this summer's Fly Line Vienna Lager.
Sure, Boise is packed with brewpub chains including Ram and Old Chicago, but its brewing community gets its feisty independent streak from brewing companies including Edge Brewing and its collaborative Habanero Pale Ale; Highlands Hollow Brewhouse and its mild English-style ales; and the tiny Cloud 9 Brewery and its Blood Orange Wit and Salted Caramel Stout.
The fact that it's not only home to, but supports a company such as Boise Brewing, which uses an NPR/PBS-style community support model that gives patrons a year's worth of Hip Check IPA, Hard Guy Saison and other beer for a $140 membership, speaks to just how much love Boise has for its beer. A little time in this town would get even the most skeptical beer lover to buy into what Boise's pouring.
This state has the fewest breweries on our itinerary thus far, but it has a much greater appetite for beer than its tiny population lets on.
Americans put down 28.2 gallons of beer per capita in 2012, according The Beer Institute. That's nearly two 15.5-gallon kegs apiece, or nearly six of their buddy's five-gallon homebrew kegs. By comparison, the average Vermonter put back 35.3 gallons of beer every year, and it's tough to blame them considering how many breweries they have access to.
Perhaps the most idyllic and unquestionably Vermonty of the bunch is the Bridgewater Corners home of Long Trail Brewing.
When Long Trail was getting lost in the flood of newer Vermont breweries a couple years ago, it began shoring up Vermont brewing culture by buying fellow longstanding brewer Otter Creek Brewery in Middlebury and its portfolio of traditional beers including Copper Ale, Solstice Ale, Stovepipe Porter and Wolaver's IPA and Witbiers. When beer geeks began passing over its traditional English IPA for hoppier Vermont beers they had to stand in line for, Long Trail released the 7.6% ABV Limbo IPA to bring them back.
This is a community that takes care of its own. Boston-based Harpoon Brewery not only bought Catamount Brewing's facility in Windsor, Vt., but turned it into destination for guided tours, a beer garden with outdoor views and live music and tall glasses of Raspberry or White UFO hefeweizen. Just this month, Harpoon sold shares to its workers and made itself an employee-owned company, insuring that the brewer that's been in business since 1986 won't be folding or selling out anytime soon.
Burlington, meanwhile keeps North American Breweries-owned Magic Hat, Switchback Brewing, Three Needs Taproom and the Vermont Pub and Brewery all within close proximity. And it wrangles the state's more far-flung brewers, including Morrisville's Rock Art Brewery, Lyndonville's Trout River Brewing and Bennington's Madison and Northshire breweries this month for the annual Vermont Brewers Festival.
Perhaps the most impressive part of that tradition is the new wave of brewing talent Vermont has drawn as a result. Vanity Fair readers know brewers such as Shaun Hill and head out to Greensboro Bend to visit Hill Farmstead regularly. Hill views his brewing as an extension of the brewing heritage his family began on that very farm 220 years ago. Beers such as Everett Porter, Abner Double IPA and Ephraim Imperial Pale Ale are all named after founder Shaun Hill's ancestors and all sit in BeerAdvocate's Top 50.
Meanwhile, that limited-availability IPA mentioned earlier is right in Waterbury, where The Alchemist makes fans line up for a few cans of its brutally bitter Heady Topper Double IPA that was perhaps the first East Coast IPA compared favorably to West Coast competitors. But even the newcomers occasionally pay tribute to those who paved the way for this state's thriving beer culture. Lawson's Finest Liquids in Warren, Vt., was founded six years ago and produces a Double Sunshine IPA that Beer Advocate considers one of the 10 best beers in the world. But who did Lawson's team up with last year to make the tasty, potent 8.5% ABV Double Dose Imperial IPA? Otter Creek, which has been brewing in Vermont since 1991 and continues to get respect from Vermont brewers to this day.
Yes, there are only a dozen breweries in this state. Yes, the Brewers Association only includes 10 of them -- largely because Anheuser-Busch InBev has a large minority stake in Old Dominion Brewing in Dover. No, that doesn't mean it's not a big deal.
With a whole lot of help from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, its brewing facility in Milton and its brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware produces 9.7 gallons of beer per drinking-age adult. Its 1.5 breweries per capita rank it 18th among all states in that category, but those nearly 10 gallons of beer it produces per potential beer buyer ranks a fourth overall.
But Dogfish Head, its 60 Minute IPA and even its Dogfish Inn along the Delaware Coast are only part of the story. The Iron Hill brewpub chain contributes two sites to the cause, but it's independents such as Stewart's Brewing that have defined beer in this state. In business since 1995, Stewart's took home a gold medal from the Great American Beer Festival last year for its Stumblin' Monk Belgian Strong Pale Ale.
Greenville-based Twin Lakes Brewing didn't get its first beers out until 2006, but its green cans of Greenville Pale Ale and blue-labeled Route 52 Pilsner are familiar in Delaware bars and beer aisles. Georgetown-based 16 Mile Brewery came in six years later, but has already established a full line of strong everyday brews including its 4.1% ABV Responders session ale, its 6.1% ABV Old Court dark pale ale and several collaborations with brewers and charities alike.
From the shore-and-sail-themed varieties of Mispillion River Brewing and 3rd Wave Brewing to the pizza-parlor-bound small-scale brews of Argilla Brewing, Delaware is teeming with little gems that come through big during the summer months. Even if you can't make it into Delaware until closer to fall, there are enough brewers with enough rotating seasonal offerings to make a trip worth your time.
There are exactly eight breweries in the Hawaiian islands. That's 0.8 breweries per capita (38th in the nation) producing 0.7 gallons of beer per drinking-age adult (31st). As beer states go, that's not incredibly impressive.
Until you remember that you're drinking beer in Hawaii.
This state could have zero breweries and still attract visitors in droves. Beer fans should feel overwhelmed that it not only has breweries, but has a bunch they've already heard of. Thanks to its membership in the Craft Brew Alliance, Big Island-based Kona Brewing has already given mainlanders a taste of its Pipeline Porter, Longboard Island Lager, Wailua Wheat and Castaway IPA. The versions of those beers at the Kona and Oahu brewpubs taste distinct from what you'll find on the mainland, with the passionfruit, mango and citrus in the Wailua Wheat and Castaway IPA are far more pronounced that what's found in beer aisles in the Lower 48.
Meanwhile, Maui Brewing in Lahaina made itself known to U.S. drinkers largely through cans of its CoCoNut Porter and Big Swell IPA. In business since 2005, Maui Brewing is already expanding to a larger facility and second brewpub, but the current location in Lahaina still pairs MBC's beers with pork, ahi tuna, pizzas, sliders and more.
The one unfortunate fact about visiting breweries in Hawaii is that it takes a bit of island hopping to do so. Aloha Beer, Honolulu Beer Works and a Gordon Biersch outlet can all be found on Oahu. If you want to get to Hawaii Nui Brewing, Big Island Brewhaus or Kauai Island Brewery, it's going to require a few connecting flights to take it all in.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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